Thursday, April 27, 2017

Fresh From the Flower Farm Near You...

There's no shortage of beautiful flowers in Provence...or places to buy them. Just about every outdoor market has a vendor selling brilliant blooms at reasonable prices. But there's something very special about buying them at the farm where they were grown...and meeting the people who grew them. And wholesale prices don’t hurt either!

Ferme Fleurie, located halfway between Tarascon and Graveson, is a large flower farm that exports 95 percent of its harvest to Holland. Yep, a big truck comes anywhere from two to seven times a week and carries away massive containers of flowers, all of them measured, clipped, bunched, refrigerated...and ready to be sold at auction. But a certain number of stems are always held back for local sale...and anyone who wants to can pop in to shop.  For export the flowers are cut "green," which means the buds have yet to open, but for local sale the flowers are ready to be enjoyed tout suite!

The flowers available each day are scribbled in chalk on a sign out on the road...just like the flavor of the day at your favorite ice cream stand. Many top hotels and restaurants in the region buy direct from the farm regularly.

Back in the day, you just pulled into the parking lot and if no one came out to greet you, you honked. But now that Marcel and Debbie van Eenennaam have opened their sweet new boutique on the property, there are convenient set hours...and a Facebook page where you can see what’s in season before you head over. The shop opened in early April.

So how is it that this charming Englishwoman and her Dutch husband came to be among the largest flower producers in Provence?

Born in a small town near Amsterdam, Marcel and his late wife Julie came down to Provence and established the farm in 1999. Julie lost her battle with cancer in 2013.

The following year, Debbie—who comes originally from Whitstable in Kent, England but was living in Istanbul at the time—arrived in Provence to visit friends. Among their guests at dinner one night was the charming flower farmer who lived just next door. And over that long, laughter-filled meal, Marcel and Debbie connected.  They stayed in touch and before too long, Debbie had chucked her life in Turkey, moved to France and moved in. The couple married on the farm in September 2015.

Ferme Fleurie operates year round. What can't be grown reliably in the ground is raised in one of 27 greenhouses, some of which are climate and humidity controlled.  To help get everything picked, packaged and shipped off on time, Debbie and Marcel have a fantastic team of Moroccan workers, a group that swells to 35 people in the height of the “short and intense” six-week peony season.

While anemones constitute a large part of their production, it’s the peonies for which the farm is best known: gorgeous fluffy blooms in colors including Bowl of Cream, Sara Bernhardt, Duchesse de Nemours, Pink Sunset and many both “single” and “double” varieties. The farm’s 130,000 stabilized peony bushes will produce roughly one million pretty stems this year.  Normally available until the end of May, the peony harvest started two weeks early this year and the flowers are being picked, at a frantic pace, right now. So if you want ‘em, come and get ‘em...they’ll be gone, most likely, by mid May.

Debbie and Marcel also grow daffodils, lilies, roses (600 bushes), tulips (20 varieties), allium, glads, viburnum, sedum, lavender (6000 bushes) and more. 

“Marcel is Dutch and likes to plant things,” Debbie says with a laugh.

If you come for flowers, you’re welcome to stroll around the 14-hectare farm where you’re likely to be followed by two sweet, inseparable black dogs named Poppy and Zazoo.  Poppy likes to swim every day, year round, in a small pond out back, while Zazoo runs back and forth on the shore.

You’re also likely to see geese and chickens; on a recent visit I spied a funny looking chicken that Debbie explained was a bit of a breeding mistake.  “I wanted to buy Silkie chickens but they were €45 each!,” she says, “so I decided to make them myself.  But I bred a furry one with a regular one by mistake. He's ugly but we really love him." In the barn the day I visited, a huge pig named Adele was crashed out in the hay, snoring loudly. 

The Boutique at Ferme Fleurie is normally open from 10 am to 12:30 and 3 pm to 6 pm (weekdays) and from 9 am to 12:30 (Saturday).  

During peony (pivoine) season, the hours are extended, as shown in the photo above. As of Monday May 15, they'll be back on normal hours.

In summer, the boutique is likely to open just one morning and one afternoon a check the Facebook page. [Summer 2017 hours began June 5. They are: Wednesdays from 3:30 to 6 pm, Thursday morning from 10 am to 12:30 and Saturday afternoon from 5 to 6 pm.]

The farm is a bit tricky to find and you’re likely to miss it on your first try. You'll know you're on the right path when you see the large blackboard telling you the fleur du jour; turn right just before it or left just after. (If you’re coming from Graveson, you’ll turn left right after a small bridge; from Tarascon look for a cross on a pedestal on your left and then turn right immediately.) After the turn you’ll see a sign for the Mas d’Arvieux...then just follow that road along the white fence, through three gentle curves, and you’re there. The farm and its GPS coordinates can also be found on Google Maps (as Ferme Fleurie SCEA Tarascon).

Ferme Fleurie, 4583 Route d'Avignon, 13150 Tarascon, France.

Photos: (1) Debbie and Marcel with just-picked peonies. The flowers are considered a symbol of good fortune and happy marriage..and they seem to have bunches of both. (2) The Boutique at Ferme Fleurie opened in early April and has been a huge hit. The prices are wholesale and the flowers are gorgeous. (3) Debbie and Marcel grow a wide range of varieties and colors, one more beautiful than the next. Peonies come in every color but blue...who knew?  (4, 5) The shop has been so busy Debbie has to re-stock multiple times throughout the day. (6) The daily-flower chalkboard is now a beloved local tradition. On this particular day, Marcel was rushing; he ran out of space for the 'e' in 'pivoine' and ran out of time to fix it! (7) In peony season, the farm employs 35 workers to get the flowers out of the fields and processed quickly for shipping to Holland. Marcel's brother receives them on the other end and does a final quality check before they go on to the Flora Holland Auction and world wide sales. (8) The Prince of Pivoines takes a much-needed break. Ok that's a lie, Marcel seems to never take a break. (9) A ready-to-be-harvested field; all but 5% of the flowers are picked "green," before the buds open, for export. The biggest crops are peonies and anemones but they grow lots of other flowers. Check their Facebook to see what's in season. (10) Beauty shot at sunset! (11) Another beauty shot! This field, one of many, shows the scope of the 14-hectare operation; the team will harvest roughly one million stems during the six-week peony season. (12) Marcel knows more about peonies than anyone. Many of his plants may very well outlive him...peonies can live to be 100 years old. (13-17) In an airplane-hangar-size building, the flowers are trimmed, bunched, wrapped, boxed and refrigerated. (18) Who wouldn't want to buy their flowers from this smiley farmer? (19) Hours are extended during peony season, which will mostly likely end in the next two to three weeks. 

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

You're Invited! Garden Tour & Lunch April 25

Three photos above: To raise money for Busoga Trust, Lucy Bakr has organized an April 25th tour of this gorgeous private garden near Tarascon, to be followed by lunch. The photos show the garden in mid April, the front terrace in October and another garden view, looking south from the house, in October.  

Two photos above: Busoga Trust builds wells in Uganda and Lucy visits once a year.  She recently took these photos showing a new well...and the original water 
source at the same site.

My friend Lucy Bakr is a tireless supporter of the UK-based charity Busoga Trust, which builds and maintains wells in rural Uganda. 

Since 1983, the group has created more than 2000 sustainable sources for clean, safe water...which is used by villagers for drinking, cooking, sanitation and hygiene.

Here in Provence, Lucy organizes numerous fundraisers for Busoga throughout the year: casual lunches, gala dinners, yard sales, coffee mornings and more.  

Lucy also runs a garden-tour club, which, over the years, has allowed many of us to explore some of the region's most-gorgeous private gardens.

Next week, on Tuesday April 25, Lucy is pairing her two passions into one great event: a garden tour and luncheon to raise funds for Busoga Trust. The group will visit a fantastic eight-hectare country garden not far from Tarascon, with six hectares of olive trees (1,400 of them to be exact) and two hectares of formal gardens. There are ponds and fountains...and a tree house (actually more of a "Champagne-drinking platform," according to the owners)...and a kitchen garden (I've just sampled the homegrown asparagus...divine!)...and beds of white Iceberg and red Sevillana roses...and iris and peonies...and formal box parterre...and a handful of beautiful cats prowling and lounging in the sunshine...and peacocks! 

Overlooking it all is the family's elegant,  château-style home, built around 1700 as a hunting lodge. 

The garden has been a huge labor of love for its owner, who tells me: "The greatest pleasure of having a large garden? It keeps you impoverished and diminishes your children's inheritance, much to their disdain!" 

Even if you're not a garden aficionado, you'll love the scale and lush beauty of this amazing property, the warmth of the owners, the fun of meeting new people and the sumptuous homemade lunch to be served on the terrace after the tour. 

Everyone will meet in the parking lot of the Château de Tarascon at 11:15 and car pool or follow to the property. A welcome coffee/tea will be served before the tour and lunch with wine will follow. The day ends around 3 pm, tickets are 40€ and all proceeds go to Busoga Trust. Spots are limited and Lucy must have your check (in euros) or a bank transfer to hold your spot. For questions or reservations:

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Social Climbing: Envie Epicurieuse is June 4

Sunday June 4 is the 6th annual Envie Epicurieuse in Provence, a day of nature, hiking, food, wine and music. My friend Kelly McAuliffe, who'll be the sommelier for the day, was there last year and says: "It blew my was so much fun. I took clients and they absolutely loved it."

The day starts with a nature hike up Mont La Vautubiere, a 634-meter peak at the back of Cezanne's famous Mont St. Victoire. When you reach the top , you'll find everything set up for the apero: wine, snacks and live music. Then everyone heads down to a large tent where the luncheon with wine pairing begins. There will be five dishes from two top Aix chefs...and eight wines...and a world-champion boulanger on hand...and lots of hilarity, to be sure.

"Eventually the baker sings in traditional Provencal, with his stunning opera voice, to put the cherry on top," Kelly says.

For those who don't speak French, Kelly will be translating and animating, not that it sounds like this day needs any animation help at all. "I really don't know how anyone could have a better Sunday in Provence! " he says.

The day is 110€ per person for adults, 25€ for kids.

The winemakers will be: Peter Fischer of Château Revelette (Jouques), Christian Valensisi from La Chapelle Saint Bacchi (Jouques), Pierre Michelland from Domaine La Réaltière (Rians) and Bengt Sundstrom of Château Vignelaure (Rians).

The chefs/restaurants are: Nicolas Monribot from Le Millefeuille (Aix) and Ludovic and Laura Aillaud of L’Épicurien (Aix).

The start point/meeting place is in the town of Jouques; you'll see signs telling you where to go. Arrive by 9:30 if you plan to do the guided nature hike...or at 10:30 if you want to do it on your own, in which case you'll have a one-hour walk to the top, on a shorter steeper route indicated with an arrow. (Kelly suggests you arrive at the top by noon.) For those who don't want to do the walk up, rides in a 4 x 4 will be offered...but be sure to request this in advance. The day will end around 4:30 pm,  the max is 200 people and the event will definitely sell out. 

The deadline for registration is May 17th and all the details are at

To book, use the online form here. Or, call or email Isabelle: +33 (0)6 11 53 2 7 01, And if you have questions and speak no French, Kelly will do what he can to help: